Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
A VISIT WITH IKE FRY
Edited and photographed by Allen Gage
I dance what's called the old Irish jig. It originated in Ireland. You don't learn how to jig dance. It's just a gift. Jig dancing is different than clog or tap dancing because nobody has the same steps. You just got your own step. But most of this now is clog or tap dancing where they have learned the same step.
There used to be about twenty of us here who jigged danced. I guess, I'm the only one active that's left out of the whole bunch. One old boy used to come up and dance with me sometimes. He's had two or three heart attacks and he can't dance anymore. He's eighty years old. When we are jig dancing, both of us has got rhythm. We're both keeping time, but we've just got a different step. If I'd try to imitate him, I couldn't and he couldn't me. That's what they call jig dancing.
At a lot of square dances the old-timers will jig through them. I happen to be one of them. We'd dance to a fiddle or banjo or whatever kind of instrument we had. I've got five different steps, and change to the different rhythm of the music when each of the different instruments take a break. You don't find one out of every hundred that jig dances. He may pat his foot or something. Other people stand on the side and talk. I just stand on the side and dance.
I keep in pretty good shape. Some say, "Don't you get tired?" But I don't. I'm small and light on my feet. It's an art but I cheat a lot. I dance on a board because it's all the same thickness where they haven't got no good floors. Also, I don't get a way up in the air like most of them. We call that nigger dancing where you throw your arms up. We have a few that does that, but you wouldn't last very long. I don't get my feet over two inches high off the floor. You'll learn everything's got a shortcut to it.
I started jig dancing when I was a boy. They was an old bachelor lived about a mile and a half from home, and he'd have square dances. My older brothers was married, and they wanted to sneak off and go to the dance. We had Airedale dogs to possum hunt with, so we'd put on a pair of good overalls and pull on another old pair over them. We'd take the dogs and tie them in an old barn, take our old overalls off and go over there and square dance all night.
My brothers never did get caught. We had two or three possums we kept hid. We'd put them on the porch and turn a tub over them like we caught them that night. My brothers didn't take their wives because a man most generally wants to take somebody else's wife. I've been guilty, too.
Most of the time I danced just in square dances when I was twenty-five years old. I knew thirty-one calls. We'd travel to Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and everywhere. That was later when I was married.
I always wanted to be on the move. That's what I like about entertaining, you're generally going someplace all' the time. I went to the Ozark Jubilee and danced with three guys from the Grand Old Opry, Jim, Jessie and Mac Wiseman. I went with them to Bentonville, Arkansas.
I was on stage with Josh Graves, Lonnie Glossum, Speck Rhodes, Porter Wagoner, Charley Walker, Burl Ives, Murl Travis, Curley Siehler and Charlie Moore.
Then somebody at Silver Dollar City seen me and wanted me to audition for them for the first musical festival they had. I then signed a contract with them, and I've worked there ever since.
In our band now there are four of us who have been together eight years. We all started together. We made an album that sold out about a month ago. I get a lot of fan mail. I got fans everywhere. I just got a letter from some people in Indiana.
I got my name, Ozark Ike, when a photographer for the Columbia Tribune come down there and took my picture. He named me Ozark Ike.
I think an important part of being an entertainer is being friendly. I enjoy talking to people. A lot of people say, "I'm busy." And I say, "No, not that busy. That's what makes my job." So if any of you'uns ever come up there, come and talk to me.
I have more fun than anything. That's what I'm there for. I don't have to work. I got a good living. I got my car and everything paid for. I don't care as long as I can draw Social Security, sit in a rocking chair and coon hunt.
I was born on August 24, 1910. I had a bunch of older brothers. My twin brother and I am the youngest ones out of seventeen, sixteen boys and a girl. I tell a lot of people, sixteen of us boys and we all had a sister. And they say, "Thirty-two?" Lots of time I never tell them any better.
Dad was sixty-six years old when I was born, and Mother was forty-seven.
I was three years old the twenty-fourth of August and my father died the twenty-sixth of October. There was seven of us brothers under sixteen when he died.
See, my father was in the Civil War. I guess I'm about the only person living whose dad was in the Civil War. He wasn't married then. He was only seventeen. He was on the Union side.
He'd been in Missouri once to visit when he was ten years old. He had an uncle living by Dunn. After the war he got married and had some children. He brought his whole family with him in a covered wagon from Tennessee in 1882.
He homesteaded a lot of land down there around Mansfield. He had tough luck on that place. His first wife was killed by lightning, the barn burnt down, and a team of mules was killed. Lightning come down the chimney and killed his first wife. He had five children by his first wife, one girl and four boys. The team of mules brought about six hundred dollars in a good year. So there was a lot of money in them. He lost his home and lost his barn with all the feed.
Then he married my mother and had us eleven brothers. Of course, we was all close just like we were real brothers and sisters. I guess I've got folks all over the United States. They're scattered out.
By the time I was born, Dad pretty much had his land cleared. He had started apple yards. He belonged to what they called the old Primitive Baptist Hardshell Church. A couple of the preachers made their living selling starts of fruit trees. So they got him interested in that. It took a lot from him. He had a hundred acres of apples, and he had about twenty acres of those big ole Alberta peaches. Several other people had small orchards. He had one man who did nothing but prune the trees. Then he had a whole bunch a-picking them, and barreling them to ship them. He also raised watermelons for selling.
I've got a twin brother. Twins run in my family. My grandfather was twins, and my brother had twin girls. My brother and I are identical twins. Teachers, mail carriers, or nobody could never tell us apart. We used to fool the girls.
We used to get in fights. I had older brothers who weighed over two hundred pounds, so we had to learn how to use a club or anything to get in to it. That's what made me so onery and tough because we thumped around a lot.
I was in school till I was nineteen. I started in when I was five. For eighty years there was a Fry in the old country school where I went down there. My nieces went there last.
School went on for nine months, but we was only in school at most six months. Back then, eighth grade was equivalent to high school. High school was equivalent to college. We really got it back then. You say any state in the United States, and I'll tell you what the capitol is.
When I didn't get my lessons, I've stood a lot of times with my nose in a circle drawn on the wall. I'd flip around and look at the other kids. I got more whippings for that!
I got to where I'd get a whipping every other day. But I'd always wear two pairs of overalls, and put the bibs in the seat of my pants, so it didn't hurt so much. Sometimes the teacher got a hold of your hand, and whipped your hand with a ruler. I'd have black rings around my legs for three weeks, where they'd whip you with a switch. But I didn't care. I took it.
One teacher who whipped me walked out to the old schoolhouse, pulled the weather boarding off and paddled me with it. There was about six of us, you whipped one of us, you had to whip all of us.
To get back at the teacher, we'd catch him down there at the outdoor toilet. A creek run down right below it and we'd carry rocks up. We'd rock him 'til four o'clock to where he couldn't come out. I guess I was the meanest playing devil to have ever walked!
Mother said when we graduated, we got to stay home and work on the farm. When it come time to pass the test for graduation, I'd tie my hand up and play hookie. I went to the eighth grade for six years!
When Dad died, there was seven of us boys under sixteen years old, so we all learned to do housework. I learnt to cook, to knit, to piece stitch and quilt. I have used the old spinning wheel, and knitted a bunch of mittens and socks. Mother always had a certain time to teach one of us, then she'd go on to the next child. When we got old enough, we graduated from housework to go to the barn. But I never did graduate, I stayed and helped her. I like to do housework.
One of our neighbors in Mansfield was the woman who wrote the book, The Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was helping my brother, and the Wilders had some land rented right by him so I worked for about a week or two for them--planted corn with one of them old time corn planters that you put a belt on and carry your corn in it. You plant two grains at a time and punch it down in the ground.
Mrs. Wilder was a clerk for the loan company. Mr. Wilder wasn't very tall. He raised a breed of horse, the Morgan, that the army wanted. He didn't raise too many of them. He farmed with a team of jennies. See, they were poor people, too.
After their daughter went to France, she wrote back and wanted her mother's past history. Then she told her mother to write the books. When the daughter come back from France, she had them a brick home built. And the other two girls that came back with her, they used this other one for a summer home. And after Mrs. Wilder died, they turned it into a museum.
The first job I had was dragging hay shocks for a nickel an hour with a horse. It was the farmer's horse. He had a hundred acres of hay with three of us dragging hay. We stacked it in big hay stacks, about three tons, to a stack. It took nearly six weeks. I was about nine or ten at the time.
We got our spending money by selling furs, rabbits, cutting wood and selling eggs. I sold eggs for a dime a dozen. I've cut many a cord of wood for fifty or seventy-five cents. Now today, it would bring seventy dollars. I worked for seven and one half cents an hour. I trapped rabbits ever since I was about five or six years old. They quit buying them in about 1934 or 35.
Most produce houses like MFA where you bought eggs, bought the rabbits from you. Possums generally brought a dollar, dollar and a half, good skunks, two and a half, three dollars. I'd make ten, twenty dollars a night.
We got a lot of them skunks illegally before the season opened. We put the hides in corn shocks
at home to hide them, or I'd go up in the cedar tree in my yard, and my twin brother would hand
them to me. I'd hang them up there on a limb where you couldn't see them. I had about
seventy-five hides in that tree. Somebody turned me in because they could smell the skunks down
there. The game warden come out there with a search warrant on him. He said, "I smell skunk." I
had some pet skunks that I kept in a pen and I said, "Wait a minute." I went to the springhouse
and got some milk and called, "Kitty, kitty, kitty." Here come those pet skunks running out there.
And he said, "That's the reason I smelt skunk!"
I've been married three times. I don't live with any of them. I was married to my first wife for thirty-three years. I've got five kids, three girls and two boys, thirteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Back through the Depression I ran a wood yard, bootlegged, and made home brew, first one thing and then the other to make a living. It was hard going back then.
Bootlegging was a pretty easy way of making a living. I went to square dances and baseball games and sold it. We generally sold fifty to seventy-five pints a night. I was just a small time bootlegger.
These people at dances knew I had it. I'd get to the dance early and hide it first one place and then the other, behind a stump or in a hollow tree. I didn't sell it to nobody right out. I'd get the money and tell them where to go get it. Because you couldn't tell, you might be setting next to a revenue man. If you sold it to a revenue man, he'd arrest you. But he didn't have nothing on me. I just had his money, I didn't have no booze. He had to go get it. It's just like a murder. You can't charge anybody with murder until you find the body.
I sold home brew a pint for twenty cents. Twenty cents was pretty high back then, but after they'd drink one, they'd want another one. But whiskey was a lot more expensive.
Moonshine is whiskey. The reason they call it moonshine is they made it of a night. Of course, I knew where there were three or four stills to make it in the daytime, too. You use hops, corn, rye and barley. There wasn't very much barley or rye around here. Most of it was corn whiskey. And some of them made it out of pure sugar. But you better have a chaser or something, for that'll bring fire.
I made home brew in the wintertime out of sugar. My brother's father-in-law was the deputy sheriff, and he lived right across the field, so we had to be kind of easy because you could smell that stuff a-working. I had three twenty gallon jars of it in the corn crib--we called it the granary then. You had to keep that warm for it to ferment, so I'd turn old tubs over the tops of them and set kerosene lanterns around them. I borrowed by sister-in-law's rabbits so you couldn't smell what I was making. Rabbits got an odor so you couldn't smell it. We'd put it in pop bottles and cap them. We had our own capper.
My sister-in-law knew what I was doing, but Mother didn't. I was still on Mother's farm.
We wasn't trying to break the law. It was kind of a way to survive. There just wasn't no money a-floating around then. In the town of Mansfield, I bet there was twenty-five bootleggers around. The bootleggers was so thick back then, they almost had to wear badges to keep from selling it to each other.
A lot of my buddies got caught. I don't think any of them ever went to the penitentiary, but they
done a year
or two in jail, or a fine. Boy, a fine was worse because it was hard to get hold of any money.
I didn't stay on the farm because it was pretty hard to make a living, so I just had a sale and sold out. I done a little hoboing. Hoboed to California and back. I wouldn't give a dime for a passenger ticket. A lot of times they'd be twenty-five or thirty hoboes. But I didn't associate with them too much. I always worked the fruit out in California. I wore overalls, so I'd rip the band, wrap some money around a lead pencil and shove it back in there and pin it up. Then I'd keep maybe a dollar or two worth in change. Some of them would hit you up for stew. I'd give them a dime or fifteen cents.
I kind of stayed alone. I moved up and down the coast picking crops.
I've hoboed about every place on this continent. I didn't pick any route. I went just to see the country. I went through the Tennessee Pass and the Royal Gorge in a boxcar. I rode the Rio Grande, Western, Missouri, Pacific, Southern Pacific and Frisco. I've seen thirty-eight states, but I've not seen any place that I liked better than the Ozarks.
For forty-three years I was a painter and paint contractor. I used to run a paint store back in 1946 as a salesman and assistant manager. I worked up to manager and I didn't want to stay behind the desk, so I quit. I called in and told them I was going back as salesman on the road. But they passed a rule you had to be assistant manager, and I didn't want that because you get all the blame if you sell to somebody and their credits aren't good.
I drove a cab for about a year, then they sold out. I guess I'd still been driving. That's the most interesting thing in the world. You meet all kinds of people. I'd carry groceries up for people. The other guys would just set. You just get out of anything what you put in.
I coon hunt for a pastime now. I've got two big old blue ticks. I turned down a thousand dollars a piece for them. I wouldn't take ten thousand. They'll hunt for a little while, and if they don't find anything, they'll come back to you and you can go again. I sold eight coons this winter. They're cheap this winter. Last year, I got forty dollars apiece. This year tops was thirty-three.
But whatever you do, the best policy is honesty and truthfulness. When I started paint contracting, I didn't have nobody's business. Even though I did it too cheap, I was going to do what I said. I had a fellow who worked for me say, "I can save you some money, by putting on one coat. They can't say nothing bout it." I said, "You put on two coats." And the first thing I knew, I had more work than I could do.
When I went out, a lot of times they'd say, "You're a hundred dollars higher than the last man I had." And I said, "If he done you a good job, why did you call me? What are you shopping around for? I could do that kind of a job, and cut corners, but I don't do it." If you know somebody's a-cheating you, you're not going to have him back. And that's the best advertisement in the world is being honest and doing a good job.
After the life I've lived, I've never had a kid that caused me any trouble. I said, "Don't do what Dad does, just do what Dad tells you to do."
"One time I was with a square dance set called the Missouri Ramblers," said Ike. "We won the square dance contest at the Kentucky State Fair in 1968. I really do enjoy being with a band and visitg with people."I coon hunt for a pastime now. I've got two big old blue tick hounds. I love those dogs. I've turned down a thousand dollars apiece for them. If a person is a coon hunter or a musician, I generally know them."I've met a lot of people in my life. If I could live my life over, I might love a few more girls. The good Lord loves them all, why shouldn't I?
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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